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May 1, 2009

Prospectus Today

Pitching Diagnostics

by Joe Sheehan

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At any point in the season, pitchers will have a stretch in which their traditional stats, such as ERA or wins, don't completely match their underlying performance. When it happens at the start of the season, we can become excited or panicked about someone even though they're actually pitching much better than you might expect.

To find pitchers who have pitched better or worse than it appears they have, I've taken a look at three indicators in particular: line-drive percentage (LD%), batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio (K/UIBB). If a pitcher is giving up a lot of line drives but has an average or low BABIP, that's an indication that they're not pitching very well but getting lucky. The reverse—a low LD% and high BABIP, indicating bad luck—is also true. A pitcher's K/UIBB is a fundamental expression of how well they're controlling the strike zone, and can be used as additional information with the first two data points or on its own.

The following pitchers have been pretty fortunate so far:

  • Paul Maholm. The Pirates' rotation was on the front page of ESPN.com's baseball website earlier this week, but you probably could have put a picture of their seven defenders up there instead. Maholm, a pitch-to-contact lefty, has a 3.09 ERA despite a 23.9 LD% and a 12/11 K/BB, and that's because the guys behind him have gobbled up everything. He's allowed a .267 BABIP, which is low for anyone, but incredibly so for a guy giving up this many ropes. There's nothing here to indicate that Maholm's ERA will end up below 4.00 this season.

  • Braden Looper. The right-handed version of Maholm, Looper has a whopping LD% of 26.9 and a mediocre 16/11 K/BB, but just a .308 BABIP—league-average, but low for that line-drive percentage—and a 2.45 ERA. If all those acronyms and jargon seem a bit much, think of these guys this way: they're giving up a lot of hard-hit balls right at people. Since pitchers don't have the ability to guide the liners they allow into gloves, this is the kind of thing that doesn't last for long.

  • Edinson Volquez. His ERA (4.45) wouldn't seem to qualify him for this kind of list, but when you look at his numbers, you find that he is giving up his share of line drives (21.1 percent) and is not paying for them (a .208 BABIP, third-lowest mark in MLB among pitchers with at least 20 IP). The biggest concern is that his command has taken a step backwards; he's walked 21 men in 28 1/3 innings (with 28 strikeouts). Volquez's stuff is so good that he's going to get his Ks; the concern is that his command, which was better but still not great last year, will force him to choose between missing the strike zone or throwing hittable strikes. So far, he's been fortunate, but that's not likely to continue.

  • Johan Santana. You don't post a 1.10 ERA without some good fortune. Santana doesn't generate many ground balls, and has a 26.6 LD% but just a .274 BABIP. Santana's BABIPs will be low because he's a fly-ball pitcher—reflecting the simple fact that ground balls become hits in play more often than fly balls do—but that kind of line-drive rate eventually shows up in your ERA, even if you post better six strikeouts for every unintentional walk you allow. The numbers can go very low when the best pitcher in baseball catches some good fortune.

  • Other very good pitchers benefitting from early-season breaks include Dan Haren (.214 BABIP, 20.5 LD%) and Matt Garza (.221 BABIP, 23.2 LD%).

On the other hand, there are pitchers who are doing a very good job at the things they can control, but seeing their ERA skyrocket nonetheless:

  • Jake Peavy is pitching for a bad baseball team, one with lousy defensive range that plays home games in a cavern. That's how you end up striking out a man an inning, giving up a slightly above-average LD% of 19.1, and still allowing a .349 BABIP and a 5.49 ERA. The Padres are 14th in the NL in Defensive Efficiency and 15th in PADE, which means that Peavy is on his own this year... at least until he gets traded.

  • I'm on record as saying that we've already seen the best year of Jon Lester's career. That doesn't mean I think he'll have an ERA approaching 6.00 this season, however. Lester has a 33/10 K/BB and a 20.9 LD%, which shouldn't produce a 5.88 ERA. Where it's gone wrong is on balls in play (.388 BABIP) and in his home-run rate. Lester has allowed homers on 18.8 percent of his fly balls allowed this year, the eighth-highest rate in the AL, and nearly twice his career rate. When those two numbers come down, as they will, Lester will once again look like a good starting pitcher.

  • One of the limiting factors to the idea that pitchers don't have significant control over the results of balls in play is that the pitchers who allow worse results than usual on balls in play are weeded out in the minor leagues, or in short major league stints. At the bottom edge of MLB pitchers we may find guys who have high BABIP marks because they simply get hit that hard, rather than that they've been unlucky.

    I'll be curious to follow the progress of Adam Eaton's season in this regard. Eaton hasn't been effective since 2005 or good since maybe 2003, and this year he has a 21/7 K/UIBB ratio in 21 1/3 innings while allowing just a 15.7 LD% and a mere two homers. Despite all this, he has a .397 BABIP and a 7.17 ERA. Has Eaton been unlucky, or have his skills deteriorated to a point where he allows too many hits to stay in the majors?

As the season goes along, remember to look past the basic stats to gauge how a pitcher is throwing over a short period of time. What appears to be a stretch of ineffectiveness could just be bad luck, and a shutout streak could have as much to do with a run of atom balls as anything else. Line-drive rate, strikeout and walk rates, home runs per fly ball, and BABIP are all next-level indicators that get closer to true performance than ERA or wins do.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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dianagram

Joe:

Do you think the spaciousness of Citi Field's outfield will help Santana in the long run, given his flyball tendencies? If the Mets can put some ballhawks in the outfield corners to go along with Beltran, that should minimize the propensity for triples that Citi Field has shown in the early going, right?

May 01, 2009 10:34 AM
rating: 1
 
mikecha

I wish there was a resource on the BABIP for starters. There's compiled stats for everything else, why not BABIP?

May 01, 2009 12:05 PM
rating: 1
 
TGisriel

I agree. I would like to see BABIP for both pitchers and hitters.

May 01, 2009 12:07 PM
rating: 1
 
ClubberLang

For pitchers, click on "Statistics" at the top of the site. Then click on VORP For Pitchers and you can sort by BABIP among other things.

May 01, 2009 12:09 PM
rating: 2
 
mikecha

thanks!!

May 01, 2009 12:15 PM
rating: 0
 
TGisriel

Last year, when the Orioles got off to a strong start in April, they led the league (or were near the lead) in Defensive Efficiency. As the year wore on, however, that stat fell for the team.

In the off-season the O's attempted to improve their defense, committing to Pie in LF, and acquiring Izturis to play SS. During the off-season commentatos suggested that the O's outfied of Jones/Markakis/Pie should be excellent.

Well, so far the O's Defensive Efficiency is the worst in baseball (which helps to explain Eaton's stats). I find it hard to explain.

To this fan's eye, Pie has been disappointing defensively as well as offensively, Mora's injury and missing games has hurt at 3B, and Jones doesn't seem to be as magnificent in CF defensively as he was last year (he's making up for it offensively).

I recognize that it's a small samply so far, but the O's need to improve defensively if they are going to give their mediocre (at best) starting staff a chance.

May 01, 2009 12:06 PM
rating: 2
 
jetson
(660)

What's the historical LD rate of these guys - it is as likely to be fluky "high" as the BABIP are fluky "low", which is why I ask. If so, the two may both regress to the mean and offset.

May 01, 2009 12:34 PM
rating: 0
 
Nathan

Regarding Adam Eaton, are you suggesting that he gets hit unusually hard, but it doesn't show up in his LD or HR rates? How does that work? Really, really smoking ground balls? Flyballs off the wall that for some reason can't get over it? It's just hard for me to imagine a pitcher getting consistently hit hard without it affecting their liner rate.

May 01, 2009 13:31 PM
rating: 0
 
Nathan

Has Zack Greinke not been lucky so far? If so, that's a scary thought for AL hitters.

May 01, 2009 13:32 PM
rating: 1
 
James Martin Cole

I'm wary of how much we can trust official scorers w/r/t line drives, and thus I'm wary of how much we can trust LD%. If balls are struck with the same trajectory and one of them falls for a hit and the other just happens to find a fielders glove, is the former more likely to be called a line drive than the latter? Do scorers tend to call more line drives when a pitcher is getting rocked than when he's doing well? Do some official scorers call more line drives than others? Do fly balls hit off the wall in Fenway end up as line drives where, were they hit in Petco, would go as fly balls?

I know people keep track of "fliners" now, but I don't know that replacing one fuzzy border (line drive to fly ball) with two fuzzy borders (from line drive to fliner and from fliner to fly ball) improves the situation all that much.

May 01, 2009 15:06 PM
rating: 3
 
Larry Meyer

Regarding Eaton, I think JS means that he historically has a high LD%. So perhaps he's just been lucky that hitters have not been making hard contact on his hittable pitches.

I'm curious about Carl Pavano (ERA 9.50 BABIP .417 LD% 19.7 SO/BB 3.20 SO9 8). He hasn't been healthy since 2004, due to TJ surgery and a slow recovery apparently caused by fragility. Assuming he's left in the rotation, stays healthy, the BABIP normalizes and he manages something close to the SO/BB, could he end up ERA<4 and SO9 7. In other words, something between his last two healthy years 2003 & 2004.

May 01, 2009 18:07 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

As I mentioned in reaction to this article in mcscoresheet (http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/mcscoresheet/message/47676):

LOB% is at least partially a measure of luck. Some of it will be related to how good the pitcher's bullpen is. Some if it might have to do how well the pitcher allows more singles or walks when no one is in scoring position, then be more dominating when runners are in scoring position. Some of it is pure luck.

K/UIBB is a great stat, that needs to complimented with some measure of power against, which I don't think LD% is a very good measure. From what I read somewhere recently, differnent stat companies have vastly differing generosity towards what is a line drive. I'm sure there must be varying differences in generosity within a single stat company over this. Hence, I don't consider it a reliable statistic. HR/something is a better measure whether that something is number of innings, number of batters, or number of pitches. Perhaps, ISO is even more accurate, because extra base hits are some indication of power, and there is a much larger N to make that a significant statistic.

That brings me to third problem I had with this analysis. We are looking at too small of an N. Yes, it is worthwhile to look at these luck indicators if you are wondering if a previously unimpressive pitcher is as improved as he seems to be - or if a previous front-of-the-rotation type is really pitching as badly as his ERA says he is. So, kudos to Joe for calming our worries over Jake Peavy or Jon Lester, but don't let him scare you about Johan Santana, Edwin Volquez, or Matt Garza.

May 01, 2009 20:00 PM
rating: 0
 
greensox

How can a highhome run rate on fly balls be sloughed off as "Bad luck"?
It's not like home run rate is some constant percentage of flyballs hit, much like a single rate on ground balls MIGHT be.

May 02, 2009 08:07 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

I'm not saying that. I am pairing it with K/UIBB as something you should not ignore it, if you are examing how lucky a pitcher is. If a pitcher has a high home rate or a low K/UIBB, but his ERA and everything else is average, then that pitcher is lucky his ERA isn't higher. It is ERA that has attributes of luck in it. Home run rate and K/UIBB are about as luck free as you can get.

May 02, 2009 10:09 AM
rating: 0
 
greensox

I was really commenting on the original article which suggested that he was pitching better than his ERA. Well, his K/BB rate may suggest that, but his home run rate does not. I'd say it's a matter of he hasn't pitched his best.
Will it change? Probably.
But there are a lot of middle of the road pitchers who give up a lot of homers and also have high K rates (usually have higher BB rates too).

May 02, 2009 11:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Actually, it is. I believe--I'm writing quickly without checking--that around 10% is the standard, and most pitchers end up around there over time. (If HR/FB is a specific skill, please point me to the background.)

I think HR/FB was, just to pick one example, the main thing that went wrong in Beckett's first year in Boston.

May 02, 2009 13:03 PM
 
John Carter

I don't think HR/FB is a skill, because it is probably a measure of how strictly fly balls are judged comparted to line drives. There is too much subjectivity in deciding what is a fly ball for it too mean very much. The same can be said of LD%. That's why I'd prefer to use HR/9 or HR/PA or HR/NOP or best of all: ISO.

May 02, 2009 16:18 PM
rating: 0
 
scoutingu

Paul Maholm and the entire Pittsburgh staff have indeed been lucky, but has anyone taken a second to notice the significant difference in defender positioning this year? I'm guessing Huntington et al have tossed Inside Edge out the door in favor of their two year video scouting tools, Dan Fox, and a lot more common sense.

May 02, 2009 15:44 PM
rating: 1
 
antonsirius

The Pirates have Perry Hill as their 'infield coach' now. The Marlins won a bunch of Gold Gloves (not to mention a World Series) when Hill was on their bench.

There isn't a whole lot of statistical evidence I've seen from Hill's career to suggest he's some kind of miracle worker, but that's certainly the reputation he's got, and at least in spring training the Pirates players seemed to be buying into what he was trying to teach.

May 04, 2009 14:23 PM
rating: 0
 
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